Family Trees

In 1962, this tiny tree was an easy jump for Sarah Mayhew. Now what started as a live Christmas tree is a huge blue spruce in West Tisbury.

Some fifty years ago, we built our house in the middle of a meadow that had been a part of a farm many years before. We faced the house southward, looking toward a small freshwater pond, and opened a passage in the old New England stone wall that divided our three-acre lot in half. The lower half of the field we left wild; the land between the wall and the house defined our yard, which in 1957 was a mixture of piles of sand from the dug-out foundation, tall, yellow mustard weed, and other less recognizable weeds. It was virgin territory off Music Street in West Tisbury, just waiting for a landscape architect to transform it into foundation plantings, perennial beds, fruit trees, and perhaps some evergreen hedges.

But I was no landscape architect, let alone a landscape gardener, and we were a young couple with three small children struggling to make our mortgage payments and conduct a slow-growing business of our own. Everything for the yard and garden would have to be lifted from the woods and fields, or donated by friends from their gardens, or grown from seed.

Flowers were simple enough. They could be planted fresh every year, enjoyed for a few months, and then forgotten until the next growing season rolled around. I made the mistake of planting my perennials along the stone wall, where poison ivy crept through and infected me every spring.

Trees were another matter, as it would be years before we could enjoy what well-placed trees could offer us – fruit, shade, spring blossoms, nesting places for birds, branches large enough from which to hang bird feeders or small swings or adult-size hammocks. I made a mistake here also – planting a few small trees too close to the house, never imagining that they might get so big that later we would have to dig them up or chop them down.

I did, however, make one very good decision. With a wisdom I did not know I had at the time, I planted two fast-growing locust trees on the west side of the house, just far enough apart to hang a hammock for when I retired and had time to lie in it. In my thirties it was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine myself retired, as I was still nine years from beginning the career from which I would retire. Nevertheless, it was one of my more brilliant insights, and I lived to fulfill that dream.

The year before we started to build, we had begun to plant trees around the perimeter of our land. We received these from the agricultural society, at no cost, as tiny evergreens, none taller than five or six inches. We planted too many pines and spruces to watch over them, water them, and protect them from the mice and rabbits. Some died and some lived, and each year we planted more tiny seedlings in the empty spaces left by our failures. By the  mid-seventies our property was defined by a barrier of evergreens that have grown steadily over time, and that now appear to be almost a forest hiding the house from view on three of its four sides. Even in our passion for planting, we were careful not to obscure the view of the pond.

Friends and neighbors contributed forsythias, white violets, and boxwood bushes. Good friends Polly and Stan Murphy donated a sapling, an offspring of their large Chinese elm tree, and we placed that to the east of our back door, close enough to the house to shade the patio by the kitchen door. Despite its magnificence, it became too shady for some of the patio flowers, obscured the sunrise view, and provided a healthy dose of fear during hurricane season.

The swamp maple, perfect for sitting under on a hot afternoon, began its life up in the woods on the other side of the pond. We found it one day as we trudged through the underbrush carrying a long-handled shovel and a burlap bag. It was not more than two feet tall, rather spindly, but nicely branched. Johnny, my husband, dug it up and we carried it home in the burlap bag with as much of its forest dirt as we could manage. Johnny planted it about thirty feet from our kitchen door at the end of the driveway. That proved to be a good location, not only close to our back door, but placed so that it would catch the prevailing breeze during the summer months.

As the maple tree began to flourish and grow in the next few years, it developed four main trunks, and I began to see it as a good climbing tree. Our three little granddaughters turned out not to be tree climbers, so we hung a popular swing from one of its branches.

I feel toward these trees, some now towering twenty-five or fifty feet tall, a fondness often reserved for nieces and nephews, or even cousins. That special love, reserved for one’s own children, reaches out to embrace one or two particular trees in my yard. Like my three children, my trees are all different and hold special places in my heart. The flowering crab apple is so lovely in the spring with its dark pink blossoms, and the resident deer come in the fall to munch the fallen fruit from the dwarf apple tree. We used to hang Christmas lights from the maple tree, and we tied our dogs to the trunk of the elm, until it got too big around. In the summer the hammock, which our children gave us when we retired from teaching school in 1986, hangs between the locust trees. The huge blue spruce, given to us as a small, live Christmas tree in 1960, is growing older, along with our daughter, who was able at the age of seven to jump over it.

Alas, as the trees flourished, so did we, and finally we all began to show signs of age. The blue spruce is taller than our house and looks more scraggly with each passing year. On the shady side, it is losing its needles, as are many of the pines and spruces on the north side of the house. The boxwoods by our front door have finally been beaten down by the snow and ice once too often – they lean against the house, which holds them up. The maple tree stands tall, but is crippled by the loss of one of its main branches during a harsh winter storm. The crab apple still puts forth a few blossoms in the spring, but little fruit.

Now that Johnny is gone, and I can no longer keep up with the old house and the old trees, I am settled in a lovely addition at our daughter’s house nearby. I will soon plant some trees around my new home. I won’t live to see them achieve full growth, but they will be my legacy to my granddaughters.